Review: Ending Empire by Hendrik Spruyt

ending-empire Apologies again for the slow posting this month.  Things are picking up quickly writing-wise as I swoop in with another review.  Two more papers are in the works and will be up in the next few weeks.

This week for my independent study with Hendrik Spruyt, I read his book, Ending Empire: Contested Sovereignty and Territorial Partition.  While I have a number of substantive criticisms, bottom line, it is a great book and well worth the read.  Highly, highly recommended to any and all students of empire, contested sovereignty, and territorial disputes.

Check out my review below and feel free to give me feedback as you see fit.

Review: Hendrik Spruyt’s Ending Empire

Following the end of the Second World War, most recognized that the age of European colonial empires had come to a definitive close. Not only had the war sapped the military and industrial strengths of the metropolitan states to the point where they generally could not expend the resources necessary to maintain their empires, but the emergence of nationalist, often violent, popular movements for independence in the colonies coupled with the employment of political rhetoric by the United States in particular in support of self-determination undermined both the strategic advantages and normative legitimacy of empire building by western powers. It then comes as no surprise that as early as the 1950s and particularly by the late 1960s, most of the formal vestiges of European empire had dissolved and in their place an unprecedented number of postcolonial states had asserted their independence, territorial integrity, and sovereign equality as full members of the international community. The real puzzle is why some metropolitan powers like France and the Netherlands tenaciously battled to maintain control of their colonial possessions in spite of these trends while others like Great Britain accepted the seemingly inevitable and withdrew.

It is here where Hendrik Spruyt’s book, Ending Empire: Contested Sovereignty and Territorial Partition, offers some direction. Firmly rooted in the historical institutionalist tradition, Spruyt contends that territorial withdrawal by colonial states in this period is best understood not as a product of power-resource considerations or perceived security threats, but by the particular form and organization of their domestic political institutions. While he acknowledges that these instrumental considerations are often incredibly important in determining the political advisability of withdrawal, the actual capacity of the state to carry out this move is determined by its institutional configuration. Not unlike Jack Snyder’s approach in Myths of Empire, he emphasizes that under such cartelized systems, groups with concentrated interests in resisting withdrawal, namely the military, business interests, and settlers, can have vastly disproportionate influences on policy outcomes.[1] Drawing on the logic of George Tsebelis’ veto players framework, Spruyt argues that the greater the institutional and partisan fragmentation of the political decision-making process, the more likely it is that actors with concentrated interests in perpetuating colonial rule will be able to block (or veto) moves to territorially retrench.[2]

This is best illustrated through a comparison of Britain and the French Fourth Republic. While the British system is dominated by two parties catering to the median voter and a relatively unified executive power translating to a single veto point, the Fourth Republic was highly pluralistic, proportionally representative with numerous minor political parties, and presented numerous opportunities for both institutional and partisan vetoes. Although the French emerged greatly weakened from the war, Spruyt argues that the government’s failure to push through a firm decolonization agenda in line with their instrumental interests was largely a result of fragmented military organization and entrenched settler interests, particularly in Algeria. Britain, by contrast, emerged the stronger of the two both in terms of military and economic capacity but decolonized much more rapidly and peacefully. Enthusiasm for continued colonial rule did not die over night, but Britain’s much more unified political system allowed for Macmillan’s government to impose its will on marginal opposition groups and cater to the median voter thus implementing withdrawal a timely, mostly bloodless withdrawal.

This approach is clearly compelling not only for its parsimony but for its apparent in-case and across-case validity. Spruyt’s application of this framework to democracies like the UK, France, and the Netherlands, and semi-authoritarian settings like Portugal and the Gorbachev-era Soviet Union seems to demonstrate that it is neither regime type nor the particular ideology of political decision makers that determines territorial retrenchment. He notes, “Ultimately, we need not account for why politicians held certain preferences. It suffices to demonstrate that preferences diverge. The question then becomes whether the institutions in the center provided the holders of hard-line positions the opportunity to block concessions.”[3] Yet it is in this implicit assumption that actor ideas and preferences “fall out” that cracks in the work’s theoretical validity begin to appear. By privileging the explanatory role of institutional arrangements over the actual ideas and beliefs held by the actors in question, Spruyt’s account largely misses the role these factors play in constituting the political conditions which give birth to both a fragmented political system and the veto points themselves. Although he acknowledges that agent volition and preference is necessary to understand why certain actors choose to exercise a policy veto in permissive institutional environments, by characterizing groups that call for continued metropolitan control as uniformly hard-line, the oppositional, anti-majoritarian character of their demands is assumed a priori.[4] Moreover, by reducing political opposition to territorial retrenchment to such an illegitimate character, Spruyt ignores the character and political impact of those demands that appeal to domestically salient discourses regarding physical security and national identity.

These problems are particularly acute in his treatment of the Israeli case. While Spruyt is certainly correct to highlight the incredibly fractious and disputed nature of Israeli politics as a key problem in reaching a domestic consensus on the status of the Occupied Territories, it is difficult to justify his quick dismissal of security-based motivations for persistent control. While Israel’s concern for its “strategic depth” has indeed become “objectively” less relevant in the absence of formal threats of land invasion, the fact that this justification for the holding of territory has become so intertwined in the domestic discourse means that these claims are virtually impossible to separate from Israelis perception of security realities.[5] Moreover, Spruyt’s characterization of settler demands as flying “in the face of popular opinion” posits a largely artificial distinction between the political opinions of Israelis living on either side of the Green Line.[6] While it is undoubtedly true that settler groups firmly support retaining Israeli control over these territories at higher than average proportions, recent population surveys have shown that “hardcore” opposition to settlement removal now stands at about 40% while public opposition to Israeli withdrawal from areas such as “Arab” East Jerusalem have never reached more than 51% and are currently substantially lower.[7]

That these views may actually be significantly constitutive of the Israeli political landscape fundamentally questions the appropriateness of the veto player framework. The question must be asked, is it the fragmentation of the political system preventing a territorial settlement in line with international demands or is it the particular domestic view of the strategic and national-cultural importance of the territory in question to the state that problematizes such resolution? That significant territorial withdrawals have been achieved over the explicit objections and physical mobilization of settler interests as with the Israeli final withdrawal from the Sinai in 1982 and withdrawal from Gaza in 2004 within the same fragmented system while similar actions have not been taken with respect to the Golan, West Bank, or Jerusalem seems to question the veto point approach. Instead, they seem to highlight the particular value, strategic or ethnohistorical, assigned to the contentious territory in question not easily captured or understood by an examination whose primary focus is institutional configurations.

These reservations may potentially be applied to the British case as well. Notably absent from Spruyt’s account is an explanation of persistent control of Northern Ireland even while the rest of the empire was relinquished with seemingly little upheaval. Should not the same single veto point that enabled the Macmillan government to rapidly decolonize its African and Asian territories over the objections of settler groups led to a parallel outcome in Ulster? Certainly nationalist upheaval in Ireland was as significant as anywhere else in the empire and the lives lost in the “quagmire” there were likely more damaging to British security and reputation in the world than any other proximate colonial era entanglement. If democratic governments with few veto players should choose policies that come closer to what unitary-state realist theories would predict than those with multiple veto players, what went wrong in Ireland? Not entirely unlike the Israeli case, it could be that this territory holds some meaning to the British for which a veto framework simply cannot explain the state’s apparent willingness to bear significant costs to retain control over it.

Even if Spruyt’s argument may be inefficient in accounting for the specifics of these particular cases, this does not necessarily devalue the usefulness or broad applicability of his theory. While the Israeli case is clearly not a straightforward example of the impact of veto players in a cartelized political system, it would be false to claim that this dynamic was not at work. Similarly in the Northern Ireland example, the argument may be made that because actor agency matters, we should not expect a priori that a government would feel the need to withdraw from a disputed territory lacking significant external pressure. To demonstrate the validity of the veto framework, all that one would have to demonstrate is that if the political leadership wished to extricate itself from the province, it could. Tony Blair’s involvement in negotiating the Good Friday Accords may be all the evidence that is needed. The level of applicability may simply be a function of what one wishes to explain. If the object is to construct a generalizable, parsimonious theory that provides a compelling account of institutional resistance to territorial retrenchment, Spruyt has taken us much of the way there. If, however, the goal is to understand the root causes and conditions that perpetuate contentious international territorial disputes, much more case specific, instrumentally attuned, and culturally conscious work is clearly necessary.


Ben Meir, Yehuda, and Dafna Shaked. The People Speak: Israeli Public Opinion on National Security 2005-2007. Tel Aviv: Institute for National Security Studies, May 2007.

Snyder, Jack L. Myths of Empire : Domestic Politics and International Ambition. Cornell Studies in Security Affairs. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Spruyt, Hendrik. Ending Empire : Contested Sovereignty and Territorial Partition. Cornell Studies in Political Economy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005.

Tsebelis, George. Veto Players : How Political Institutions Work. Princeton N J: Princeton University Press, 2002.

van Creveld, Martin L. Defending Israel : A Controversial Plan toward Peace. 1st ed. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2004.

[1] Jack L. Snyder, Myths of Empire : Domestic Politics and International Ambition, Cornell Studies in Security Affairs (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991).

[2] George Tsebelis, Veto Players : How Political Institutions Work (Princeton N J: Princeton University Press, 2002).

[3] Hendrik Spruyt, Ending Empire : Contested Sovereignty and Territorial Partition, Cornell Studies in Political Economy (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005). 13.

[4] Ibid. 7.

[5] The argument that Israel no longer needs the minute strategic depth that holding the West Bank and other territories offers is as vacuous and normatively bound as the arguments to the contrary. I approach this question in my review of Martin Van Creveld’s book, Defending Israel, on my personal website:

Martin L. van Creveld, Defending Israel : A Controversial Plan toward Peace, 1st ed. (New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2004).

Spruyt, Ending Empire : Contested Sovereignty and Territorial Partition. 239-240.

[6] Spruyt, Ending Empire : Contested Sovereignty and Territorial Partition. 243.

[7] Yehuda Ben Meir and Dafna Shaked, The People Speak: Israeli Public Opinion on National Security 2005-2007. Tel Aviv: Institute for National Security Studies, May 2007. 56-59.

One Response to Review: Ending Empire by Hendrik Spruyt

  1. […] and domestic perception of appropriate territoriality similarly speaks to problems that exist in Hendrick Spruyt’s theory of domestic resistance to imperial retrenchment.  While his use of veto points to explain […]

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